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Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

FILE - Philippine President Benigno Aquino, center, applauds as Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, second from left, shakes hands with Senate President Franklin Drilon, second from right, at the presidential palace in Manila, September 10, 2014.

One year ago, the Philippine government reached an agreement with a Muslim rebel group that was meant to put an end to more than four decades of conflict that had left about 120,000 people dead and displaced millions.

But the peace process is facing a major setback after a botched military operation to bring in internationally suspected terrorists in parts of the Muslim-majority south in January resulted in a bloody gunbattle between government forces and Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters.

Dozens were killed in the fighting, including 44 police commandos, 17 MILF rebels and three civilians. It happened just as lawmakers were starting deliberations on a proposed law that would create an autonomous region in the south. The incident has raised doubt about the peace pact on both sides that has been difficult to quell.

Lawmakers in Manila are questioning the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, saying some parts are unconstitutional, while some factions in the south want to scrap the deal altogether and return to conflict.

Once 'misinformation dissipates'

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the government’s chief peace negotiator, said, "Once the fog of all of this misinformation dissipates, through some of the corrective measures and the confidence-building measures that we are undertaking now, we are assuming that both the House and the Senate will be able to resume their deliberations next month.”

Ferrer said one of those corrective measures is the newly formed citizens’ council to shepherd the bill. She said the group will be crucial to moving the peace process forward.

In a national address Friday President Benigno Aquino named the leaders of the council including Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, Philippine businessman Jaime Zobel de Ayala and retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide.

While the Aquino administration tries to get the peace deal back on track, the military continues to pursue a breakaway Muslim rebel faction in the heart of the MILF’s area. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees said more than 120,000 people have been displaced because of the operation.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters do not agree with the peace deal and broke away from the MILF in 2011. They have been fighting the government ever since and officials believe they are harboring nine suspected terrorists, including foreign nationals.

MILF pursuing peace

Military spokesman Harold Cabunoc said apart from going after the rebel faction, the operation is intended to highlight the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s openness to pursuing peace.

“We challenge them to show sincerity by helping us, by sharing information about the BIFF, to insure that the presence of the BIFF is not tolerated inside the MILF communities," Cabunoc said.

He added that MILF has been complying with the military.

Peace negotiators want the Bangsamoro measure signed into law before the second half of the year so residents in the affected region can decide whether to be part of the new entity.

Once the area is determined, residents will vote in May 2016 for members of the newly created parliament that would see a Bangsamoro government in place by the time President Aquino steps down a month later.